A colleague has drawn my attention to the phenomenon in geology referred to as ‘Braided Rivers’ (Best and Ahworth 1997). Braided Rivers do not follow a single channel. They have a channel that consists of a network of small channels separated by small and often temporary islands called braid bars.
The analogy of braided rivers for school culture is useful. Schools may have a single dominant culture – a single channel river. A school could have a dominant culture and at the same time have other cultures that meet and connect at times but diverge and run their own course at others. Over a period of time the culture of my school has been like a braided river. There has been a dominant culture but there have been other cultures and these have run a common course at times but have diverged strongly at others. With braided rivers a general reduction in energy, that is a reduction in the river flow, results in many of the smaller channels disappearing. This also appears to be the case in braided cultures. The dominant culture seems to have a capacity to perpetuate itself while the non-dominant culture needs constant input or constant work or constant effort in order to keep it going. There is a real risk that if you lose key influential people the alternative culture can disappear very quickly and the dominant culture is able to take over again. The dominant form is usually legitimised by those who have institutional power. Within my work I see programmes that operated in a particular way over a period of time. When the transformational individual moves on the programme may continue looking the same on paper but it is different. The dominant model takes over. However, the positive side of this is that many of the effects of these programmes cannot be seen because the effects are elsewhere. The effects are in the people who worked through the programme and whose lives have been influenced by them. For an individual teacher with a vision the braided river analogy provides an insight into how it may be possible to devise ways of realising the vision from within the problematic situation.